In tandem with our NFC round-up, we’re looking back over the 2020 season at the good, the bad and the ugly for every team. Here are the highs and lows from across the AFC during the year. Let us know if you agree with them or if you have suggestions of your own.
The good: The run game. With more than 3,000 yards on the ground, a third of which came courtesy of dual-threat QB Lamar Jackson, the Ravens were ranked #1 in the NFL for run offence for the second year in a row. A whopping 404 of them came in the 38-3 trouncing of Cincinnati in Week 17 – a new franchise record for the AFC’s fifth seed.
The bad: November. Despite reaching the playoffs with an 11-5 record, they lost three times in November, succumbing to the Steelers (28-24), Patriots (23-17) and Titans (30-24). Another loss to title rivals Pittsburgh on 2 December left them at a very wobbly 6-5, having entered the previous month at 5-1.
The ugly: COVID-19. That second game with the Steelers was moved three times due to a COVID outbreak in the camp. They finally played on a Wednesday, with 18 players – including Jackson, Mark Ingram, JK Dobbins, Mark Andrew and Calais Campbell – unavailable. The inevitable 19-14 loss ended any hopes of taking the AFC North title.
The good: Allen and Diggs – Making Buffalo Great Again. Buffalo’s third-year QB Josh Allen blossomed into an MVP contender, breaking franchise records for passing yards (4,544) and touchdowns (37), while former Viking Stefon Diggs became the perfect target, as he topped the league for receptions and receiving yards. This partnership was the main reason the conference’s second seed won the AFC East for the first time since 1995 and swept their divisional rivals for the first time ever. They were even the local poster boys on Election Day.
The bad: Kyler Murray. When Kyler’s all-or-nothing, 43-yard chuck-it-and-see effort came down in DeAndre Hopkins’ grasp despite triple coverage, it handed Buffalo their only loss in a 10-game streak. Now known as the “Hail Murray”, the play sealed a 32-30 win for the Cardinals with just seconds left. Spectacular but gutting.
The ugly: The AFC Championship Game. It seems a bit churlish to put their 38-24 loss to the reigning champions Kansas City here but they were never at the races in this one. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise fantastic season – one of the best in a long ol’ time for the Bills Mafia.
The good: Steelers Week. For (us) Bengals fans starved of success against Pittsburgh, the Monday Night 27-17 win over the Steelers in Week 15 was an undoubted 2020 highlight. Big Ben coughed up three turnovers and even stand-in QB Ryan Finley held it together, despite only seven completions for 89 yards. Vonn Bell’s bone-crunching hit on JuJu was probably Cincy’s play of the year.
The bad: The O-line. The Bengals’ offensive line stunk yet again in 2020. Injuries didn’t help matters but relying on several below-par performers all season was always going to be a recipe for disaster (see “the ugly”). The offseason priority has to be investing in protection for Joe Burrow.
The ugly: Joe Burrow’s injury. The first nine games of Burrow’s nascent NFL career were so promising. Alas, it all came crashing down when a pile of bodies did exactly that against his left knee in a 20-9 loss to Washington, ruining his ACL and MCL. Hopefully, he’ll be back as good as new in time for the 2021 season.
The good: Kevin Stefanski. The team’s new Head Coach revitalised the Browns, leading them to their first non-losing season since 2007 (11-5) and the sixth seed in the playoffs. With an offence built on the rushing prowess of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Stefanski laid the longest active playoff drought (25 years) to rest and has since been named the NFL Coach of the Year.
The bad: The Jets game. I suspect most of us were largely impressed with how the NFL navigated a global pandemic and got all 269 games played, but there were a few oddities that didn’t seem fair. One of them was the Browns having to play the New York Jets in Week 16 with barely a recognised WR due to COVID hitting their receiver room. The 1-14 Jets won 23-16 and it almost cost Cleveland a playoff berth.
The ugly: Daniel Sorensen. In their 22-17 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round, the KC safety delivered a controversial helmet-to-helmet hit on wide receiver Rashard Higgins at the 1-yard line. Down 16-3 late in the first half, what would have been a vital 26-yard TD was deemed a fumble through the end zone for a touchback. Crucially, Cleveland lost by five and their season was over.
The good: 2021 expectations. With Drew Lock’s travails hampering the Broncos’ season, it’s easy to look past their young and highly promising offensive weapons. Denver’s receiver corps of Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, plus tight end Noah Fant, are an enviable set of weapons that any QB (not necessarily Lock) would be delighted to line up with in 2021, as long as everyone’s healthy (see below).
The bad: Injuries. The Broncos endured a fourth-consecutive losing season (5-11) but injuries had a big hand in decimating their exciting roster. Drew Lock suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2, Von Miller and Courtland Sutton missed the whole year and many others, including Philip Lindsay, AJ Bouye and Jurrell Casey, spent time on IR.
The ugly: Playing without a QB. Echoing the Browns’ woes, Denver were required to play one game without a recognised quarterback, against the Saints of all teams. COVID restrictions ruled out their entire QB room after a positive test, forcing Kendal Hinton – a practice squad receiver – to play under centre. He had twice as many interceptions (two) as completions (one), and logged 19 yards from nine attempts in a farcical 31-3 thrashing.
The good: Deshaun Watson. The second-biggest contract in NFL history ($177.5 million) theoretically secured Watson’s services until 2025, but at least his performances were worthy of the investment. Despite a 4-11 season, Watson served up a league-leading 4,823 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions – the best campaign in franchise history.
The bad: September. And October. Oh, December too. The Texans lost all four of their admittedly tough opening games – Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers and Vikings – but other than a couple of wins against the hapless Jaguars, they had nothing more to show in the W column until mid-November. They also lost every game in December. Opening 1-6 and closing 0-5 made the 2020 season memorable for all the wrong reasons.
The ugly: Everything. Oh boy, where do you start? The many ‘uglies’ from this dumpster fire of a year include the highly criticised trade of DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona, the inevitable firing of General Manager and Head Coach Bill O’Brien and the endless tales of locker-room unrest. Deshaun Watson has since asked for a trade while JJ Watt was granted a release from his contract after a decade of elite defensive play. It’s all going to hell in a handcart now.
The good: Philip Rivers. Although they couldn’t quite pip the Titans for the AFC South crown, the Colts did return to the playoffs as the AFC’s seventh seed. Much of their success came through the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers, signed on a one-year deal. Rivers now ranks fifth in all-time passing yards (63,440) and touchdowns (421), and second in consecutive regular season starts by a quarterback (242), having not missed a game since 2006.
The bad: The Wild Card Round. I was sorely tempted to bring up Rivers’ terrible attempt at a tackle against the Ravens… but I digress. The Colts were unlucky in facing the bang-in-form Bills in the first playoff game. They fell 24-10 behind but two fourth-quarter TDs at least made a game of it. They were unable to score on the final drive though, sealing a Buffalo win and calling time on Rivers’ career.
The ugly: Losing to the Jaguars. At least the Colts got their worst moment of the season over and done with in Week 1. Their 27-20 loss in Jacksonville proved to be the Jags’ only win of a terrible campaign, and continued a seven-season streak in which Indy have lost their opening game.
The good: Tanking for Trevor. It’s hard to find positives in the Jaguars’ 1-15 season – their ninth losing season in the last 10 – but finishing with the worst record in the league did bring one significant benefit. The Jags are essentially on the clock for the first pick in the NFL Draft already and are widely expected to take ‘generational talent’ Trevor Lawrence from Clemson as their next quarterback and face of the franchise. Things could be on the up at last.
The bad: 15 straight losses. As only the fourth team ever to win their opening game but lose the rest, there are many ‘bads’ to pick from. Consecutive losses to the Bengals, Texans, Lions and Texans again in the middle of the season certainly put the writing on the wall, with General Manager David Caldwell and HC Doug Marrone the inevitable casualties.
The ugly: Lack of options at QB. It’s just as well the Jags have their pick of the best signal-callers in college football because if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that they need one. With no depth behind starter Gardner Minshew, who injured his thumb and was later a healthy scratch, the team turned to untried rookie Jake Luton and then veteran Mike Glennon. Neither could sustain any semblance of form either.
Kansas City Chiefs
The good: Reaching Super Bowl LV. The Chiefs strolled through the season, logging a 14-2 record without breaking sweat. Tight end Travis Kelce reeled in 1,416 yards (second in the league), Tyreek Hill scored 15 TDs (second) and Patrick Mahomes threw for 4,740 yards (also second). The AFC West winners and #1 seed ramped it up a notch for the postseason and made it back to the Super Bowl to defend their title at the first attempt.
The bad: What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Let’s exclude KC’s Week 17 defeat to the LA Chargers for a moment, when most of their stars were rested to keep them injury-free ahead of the playoffs. That leaves the one ‘proper’ black mark in their regular season copybook: the 40-32 defeat to the Raiders in Week 5. It was the first 7+ point loss in Mahomes career.
The ugly: Losing Super Bowl LV. Had Kansas City lost a massive shootout in the season finale, we’d have all said “wow, they gave it their all, how unlucky.” But it wasn’t like that. The Chiefs gave away 120 yards of penalties, their offence was shut down by a ferocious Tampa Bay defence and their only points in a 31-9 defeat came courtesy of Harrison Butker’s boot. It was not the storybook finish they – and many of us – had expected.
Las Vegas Raiders
The good: A great start. In their inaugural season as a Las Vegas-based franchise, the Raiders settled into their new home, the Allegiant Stadium, with barely a ruffle. Midway through the season, they’d beaten the Chiefs, Saints and Browns on their way to an impressive 6-3, and things were hotting up in the desert.
The bad: A second-half collapse. Just when it looked like the Raiders may be genuine playoff contenders, the wheels started to fall off the wagon. A run of five defeats in seven games ended any postseason dreams as they slumped to 8-8, with a 43-6 humbling at the hands of Atlanta probably the worst of the bunch. That day, the usually reliable Derek Carr threw a pick-six and fumbled three times, while Josh Jacobs also lost a fumble.
The ugly: The Week 16 loss to Miami. Despite kicking a field goal with 19 seconds remaining to take a 25-23 lead, the scoring wasn’t over. On the next play, Ryan Fitzpatrick somehow completed a 34-yard pass to Mack Hollins, despite being dragged down by his facemask in the process. The additional 15-yard penalty put the Dolphins in kicking range and of course, the trusted foot of Jason Sanders sealed the one-point win. That left Las Vegas below .500 for the first time in 2020 and eliminated them from the playoffs.
Los Angeles Chargers
The good: The newbie QB. The sixth overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft turned out to be highly successful as young quarterback Justin Herbert ended his first pro season as the NFL Rookie of the Year. Herbert set first-year quarterback records for passing touchdowns (31), total touchdowns (36) and completions (396), and recorded the second-most passing yards (4,336) for a rookie QB.
The bad: The medical staff. It all worked out with Herbert but he was unexpectedly thrown into the fray earlier than expected: just before kick-off against Kansas City in Week 2. In administering a pain-killing injection to Tyrod Taylor’s cracked ribs, a team doctor accidentally punctured his lung. The resulting breathing difficulties meant Taylor was whisked off to hospital and Herbert was suddenly thrust into the limelight.
The ugly: Narrow defeat after narrow defeat. Blowing fourth-quarter leads was a major factor in the Chargers’ penchant for losing close games by narrow margins. Eight of their nine losses were by deficits of 10 points or less (see the Patriots for the other one), two came in overtime and one, at Denver, was by a single point. After a 7-9 season, it was no surprise to see HC Anthony Lynn get the order of the boot, despite a four-game winning streak to close out the campaign.
The good: A winning season. After not quite tanking for Tua last year and still ending up with their QB of choice, this year’s 10-6 campaign was a notable improvement. Under the leadership of Brian Flores, they enjoyed many high points including a great win over the 49ers, a five-game winning streak to go 6-3 and Xavien Howard leading the league with 10 interceptions.
The bad: Tua underwhelms. Sure, the rookie QB was decent enough and won six of his nine starts. However, he wasn’t as amazing as advertised and did have his struggles. He was twice benched in favour of Ryan Fitzpatrick when things weren’t going his way; he was subbed in a loss to Denver and Fitzmagic also came in to save the day against Las Vegas (see Raiders).
The ugly: Not making the playoffs. In a competitive conference, double-digit wins still weren’t enough to take Miami through the door marked ‘playoffs’. With everything on the line in Week 17, the Dolphins were unfortunate to come up against a rampant Bills team, and took a heavy 56-26 loss. Tua threw three INTs including a pick-six, and Fitzmagic wasn’t available to bail him out this time. Meanwhile, the Colts – their rivals for a postseason berth – were seeing off Jacksonville. Close but no cigar.
New England Patriots
The good: Dropping 45 points on the Chargers. There weren’t many highlights last year but the 45-0 destruction of the LA Chargers in Week 13 certainly stands out. Despite figures of 12-of-19 for 69 yards, Cam Newton threw a TD to N’Keal Harry and rushed for two more, and even Jason Stidham threw one. Special teams also chipped in, returning a punt and a blocked FG to the house. A full team effort.
The bad: COVID opt-outs. The season got off to a bad start, when eight of their players announced they would decline the option to play due to COVID-19. The opt-outs hit the team on both sides of the ball, with linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung, OT Marcus Cannon and wide receiver Marqise Lee among those who sat 2020 out.
The ugly: No January football. Things did not go as planned with Cam Newton under centre instead of Tom Brady. A 7-9 record marked their first losing season since 2000 and, finishing third in the AFC East, the divisional title – as well as a playoff place – eluded them for the first time since 2008.
New York Jets
The good: Both wins. Gang Green did manage to rustle up two consecutive victories towards the end of the campaign. After 14 weeks of defeats – a franchise record – they beat the LA Rams 23-20, despite starting as 17-point underdogs, then followed it up with a 23-16 victory over the COVID-depleted Browns. The inevitable departure of HC Adam Gase is also seen as a plus point by many.
The bad: The first 14 weeks. A 2-14 campaign is inevitably going to contain more bad than good, and their record included 36-7, 24-0, 20-3, 35-9 and 40-3 defeats. But to be ranked 30th on defence, 31st on offence and 32nd overall, but still not secure the first pick in next year’s draft, takes some doing. No wonder the Jets faithful were losing their minds when that win over Cleveland snuffed out the possibility of selecting Trevor Lawrence.
The ugly: Extending the postseason drought. The Jets were the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention this year, extending their dry spell to a decade. And with both Cleveland and Tampa Bay qualifying for January football for the first time since 2002 and 2007 respectively, New York now ‘boast’ the longest active run without postseason football in the NFL.
The good: The first 11 games. OK, so some of us thought that the Steelers were the worst 11-0 team in living memory but by hook or by crook, Big Ben, JuJu, Chase Claypool and co. managed to churn out nothing but Ws till 7 December. Building on that best-ever start, the AFC’s #3 seed punched their playoff ticket in Week 14 and clinched the AFC North title with a Week 16 win over the Colts.
The bad: The rest of the season. Other than the victory against Indy at Heinz Field, their other five remaining games all ended in defeat. The rot set in against Washington, the Bills also saw them off and further losses to divisional rival Cincinnati and Cleveland took the shine off their season as they limped over the line at 12-4. They were also one-and-done in the postseason with a second loss to the Browns in as many weeks. The 48-37 scoreline suggests a fairly even contest but it was pretty much over after a quarter, when they were already 28-0 down.
The ugly: JuJu’s TikTok dances. As much as I wanted to say Ben Roethlisberger’s immobility here, the ugliest part of the Steelers’ season was their wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster posting videos of himself dancing on the opposing team’s logo during his pre-game warm-ups. He was heavily criticised for his lack of respect but only stopped after HC Mike Tomlin had a word.
The good: King Henry. Half-running back, half-machine Derrick Henry managed to better last year’s 1,500-yard season with 2,027 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, topping the NFL in both categories. Taking his knack for stiff-arming defenders to a new level, the league’s Offensive Player of the Year was a major factor in the Titans recording a 11-5 season, claiming the fourth seed and taking their first AFC South title since 2008.
The bad: The first half against Cleveland. The Week 13 loss to the Browns was a classic game of two halves. Unfortunately for Tennessee, it was all but over by half-time, by which time Baker Mayfield had thrown four touchdowns and built a 38-7 lead. They fought back after the break but a failed onside kick in the final minute put the tin lid on a 41-35 loss.
The ugly: Wild Card Weekend. An uncharacteristically flat Tennessee slumped out of the postseason at the first hurdle, going down 20-13 at home to the Ravens. Ryan Tannehill made just 18 passes for 165 yards, only AJ Brown hauled in more than three catches and just one game after setting a new franchise record with 250 rushing yards against the Texans, Henry could only muster 40 yards on the ground.